A Research Guide for Beginners

by Rosemary Dixon-Smith

Since the beginning of what might be termed The Family History Revolution, a large number of "How To" books have been written about researching ancestry. Most are geared for family historians in the United Kingdom and United States and offer expert advice. However, such publications fail to address the special needs of researchers seeking ancestors in the South African context. R.T.J. Lombard's authoritative "Handbook for Genealogical Research in South Africa", the 'bible' of South African family historians, pre-dates the impact of Internet on this topic.

The introductory guide presented in the following pages is aimed at those who are beginning their research into South African ancestry, possibly with minimal information and not knowing quite how to proceed, what sources are available or even what questions to ask. If you're reading this, you have the advantage of a computer and access to Internet, valuable tools for the family historian and essential if conducting your quest from a distance.

Be assured that there's nothing esoteric about researching South African family history:


given a few guidelines plus the essential attributes of any family historian: enthusiasm, commitment and patience. Family history is the fastest-growing hobby in the world: it's fun, it's educational and it's addictive. You have been warned!


The first step on the road towards researching South African ancestry is to become acquainted with the South African National Archives online index (NAAIRS - National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System) at www.national.archives.gov.za

Mainly public records stemming from the business of government, for the family historian they are a window on the lives of generations of South Africans. Upwards of seven million records are available, with on-going additions at a rate of about 250,000 annually. The site is user-friendly and navigating around it will soon become second nature to you. Before taking the plunge, read the introductory pages, particularly the sections on Abbreviations and Source Codes. Be imaginative in your searches.

It should be emphasised that the INDEX is just that: a way of identifying and locating relevant records. Once such references are found, the originals must be viewed at the archival repositories concerned, either visiting these yourself or, if at a distance, delegating the task to local researchers who will then transcribe or provide digital photographs of the contents. On request, the Archives repositories in each centre will provide you with a list of professional researchers operating in that area. Contact details of researchers can also be found on a number of web sites.


If your ancestor died in South Africa, check the online index for a Deceased Estate. Should a likely reference emerge, arrange for retrieval of the file. The Deceased Estates are an excellent "way in" to SA ancestry and, for forebears who died after 1834, the most important of the estate documents is the Death Notice.

The DEATH NOTICE typically contains the following details: full name of the deceased, date and place of death, birthplace, age at death, nationality, names of parents, occupation, place of residence, marital status, place of last marriage, names of surviving and pre-deceased spouses, children's names (in the case of minors giving dates of birth; daughters' married names may be included), whether the deceased owned movable and immovable property, whether this was over a certain value and whether the deceased left a will. The signature of the informant, usually the next-of-kin, appears on the document and states whether the informant was present at the time and place of death.

Its true that sometimes there may be disappointing gaps in a Death Notice - e.g. birthplace given simply as "England" without addition of a helpful county, or the parents' names omitted. Cases of deliberate misinformation have been known to occur. Generally, though, the information supplied will take you several steps further on your journey into the past, and may also provide avenues for searching forwards to descendants and living relatives, should that be your focus.

Some vital points:

1. The Death Notice is not to be confused with the DEATH CERTIFICATE, which is a much briefer document. The only piece of information contained on a Death Certificate which does not appear on the Death Notice is Cause of Death. (See Civil Registration and Certificates below).

2. Its preferable to have sight of all the documents pertaining to a Deceased Estate, and not stop at the Death Notice. Other papers may include a WILL, LIQUIDATION & DISTRIBUTION ACCOUNT, INVENTORY, and a variety of correspondence. These are all potential sources of information. (See "Making the Most of Deceased Estate Files" on the Genealogy World web site under the "South African Interest" section).

3. Deceased Estate files are only one of the many types of records found on the online Index. They're emphasised here simply as a good place to start your search.

4. Not everyone who died in South Africa had a Deceased Estate filed. Reasons vary: the deceased may have had minimal assets and hence literally no "estate".

5. If your ancestor did not die in South Africa, but was here for a temporary sojourn before returning to his place of origin or moving on to another colony, other research avenues will be required. Occasionally, finding a Deceased Estate filed in SA for a person who died elsewhere, e.g. UK, may indicate that he/she owned property in SA.

6. In the case of a recent death, an estate file wouldn't be listed on the online Archives Index as it would still be held by the Master of the Supreme Court.. e.g. Estate files up to and including 1974 are available at Pietermaritzburg Archives. (See my "Guide to Archives, Museums & Libraries in Natal" on the Genealogy World web site.)


Compulsory civil registration of Births, Marriages and Deaths commenced in South Africa as follows:

Cape: marriages 1700, births and deaths 1895
Natal: marriages 1845, births 1868, deaths 1888
Transvaal: marriages 1870, births and deaths 1901
Orange Free State: marriages 1848, births and deaths 1903

Registers are maintained by the Department of Home Affairs, Pretoria. Public access to the indexes and registers is not allowed. BMD Certificates can be ordered from the Department but ONLY if FULL details of the event (name, date and location) are given. These are usually precisely what the family historian is seeking! More information on ordering certificates as well as downloadable application forms can be found at http://home-affairs.pwv.gov.za or you can write to the Registration Office, Department of Home Affairs, Private Bag X114, Pretoria 001. The processing of orders is slow.

If a Death Notice is found for an individual, ordering a Death Certificate may not be a priority. As mentioned above, the Death Certificate doesn't supply anything "new" other than Cause of Death and Duration of Final Illness, with the name of the doctor attending. Sometimes, a Death Certificate may be found in a Deceased Estate file. If ordering a Death Certificate for family history reasons, request a FULL certificate. For purposes of obtaining Ancestral Visas, a VAULT copy is required.

Marriage certificates are notoriously uninformative: parents' names, for example, do not appear (unless minors are involved, when the consenting parentís name would be given). Witnesses names may include relatives of the bride and groom. Often, if the couple were later divorced, a copy of the marriage certificate is found in the divorce file, a useful shortcut.


These are a valuable source of information, but before any search for your ancestors' records can be undertaken you need to know location and at least an approximate date of an event. Apart from the major denominations such as Dutch Reformed, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic, there is a plethora of other denominations whose registers may not be centrally held.

The Dutch Reformed Church archives date back to 1665 and are well-maintained. Since this was the only official church in South Africa until 1778, remember that British ancestors may have been baptised in the Dutch Reformed Church failing any other in the vicinity. Similarly, Boer ancestors may be found in Anglican registers.

The Church of the Province of South Africa (Anglican) has existed since 1806. The Cullen Library at Witwatersrand University holds Anglican records. Original Natal registers are preserved at the Anglican Diocesan Archives in Pietermaritzburg, which are open to the public. Cory Library at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, has certain holdings of Presbyterian, Methodist and Catholic records. Evangelical Lutheran Church records up to 1890 are at Cape Archives.

A certificated copy of an entry in a church register, usually available for a small fee from the denomination concerned, can provide the family historian with a substitute for an "official" certificate and may obviate the Home Affairs route.

Where allowed by the churches concerned, the LDS have filmed South African church registers. Visit the nearest LDS Family History Centre to order relevant films at minimal cost. Any search in parish records is time-consuming.


Burial registers found at most municipal cemeteries are arranged according to year and give name, date of burial and age at death, as well as location of the grave. e.g. Stellawood cemetery in Durban has a large map of block and plot numbers available at their office, which is helpful if you want to take a photograph of the ancestor's last resting place. There are on-going indexing projects for burial registers at many South African cemeteries. Registers of cremations (20th century onwards) are kept at certain cemeteries.

The Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA) has collected many monumental inscriptions and a partial database can be found on the online index. Its always worth asking your local LDS Family History Centre for transcribed lists of local cemetery burials. e.g. West Street, Verulam and others (not only Natal) are to be found at the Silverton Road FHC, Durban. (See overview "The Genealogical Library" by Delyse Brown under the section "South African Interest" on the Genealogy World web site).


Census records are not preserved in SA, so this avenue, much used in UK, is regrettably not open to us. Electoral rolls may provide a substitute, some occurring in newspapers, or in magisterial archives (unindexed) of the various provinces , and some in pre-1910 government gazettes, but are a supplementary source at best. Women (white) were not enfranchised until as late as 1930 in SA.

Directories providing useful lists of names, such as the Natal Almanac & Yearly Register, as well as Civil Service Lists etc. are available at Archives repositories and libraries.

Land registration began in SA in 1685. Deeds can be useful for tracing property transactions, and are found at the Surveyor-General's Office in each area. The name of a farm can be looked up in their registers. Maps showing farm names may be among archival holdings, and help to pinpoint location. The Inventory which is included in Deceased Estate files gives the legal description of a property. Mortgage Bonds often occur as references on the online index but their value for genealogical purposes is limited.

For social history and background material on local settler groups or individuals, museums can be of considerable assistance: Huguenot Museum (Fransch Hoek), Kaffrarian Museum (King William's Town), Albany Museum (Grahamstown), the Old Court House Museum and Campbell Collections (Durban) are a small selection. Contact details for these and others appear on the National Archives site, and some are given on Genealogy World pages.

If your ancestor was in the military in SA at any period read "Researching Ancestors Who Were Servicemen" on The South African National Military History Museum site http://www.militarymuseum.co.za/. Troops performed an essential role in colonial South Africa from its earliest beginnings at the Cape, through the later Frontier Wars, on to the Victorian era (Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars) and beyond, and this huge topic requires more space than is available here. The South African Defence Force holds records of all persons who served in the SA Armed Forces since 1912, including both World Wars. Write to the Deputy Director, Documentation Centre (Personnel Archives) Private Bag X289 Pretoria 001. References to individuals serving in various units can be found by surname on the online National Archives Index, e.g. for the South African Constabulary which many British soldiers joined at the cessation of the Anglo-Boer War. Further information on researching military ancestors will be provided on the Genealogy World web site in due course.

Newspapers are an enjoyable and rewarding source (personal announcements, obituaries, shipping columns etc.) but a reasonable date parameter for the event is essential. There are microfilms of some SA newspapers available, and originals can also be found at local archival repositories and libraries. (It's much easier to search the pages of hard copy newspapers than on microfilm, column by column.) Natal Society Library Pietermaritzburg has a formidable collection of original Natal Witness, Natal Mercury and other newspapers. The Cape Town Press Index covering a portion of the 1870s is available on microfiche at the State Library Cape Town and other institutions. The British Newspaper Library at Colindale, has some SA newspapers; their catalogue can be seen at http://prodigi.bl.uk/nlcat/.


"What ship did my ancestor come to SA on"? is without doubt the most Frequently-Asked-Question in South African ancestry research. While there are few thrills comparable with finding your forebear and family on an original passenger list, such records are not the ideal starting-point for your quest. Far better to begin with the final act of the drama, i.e. the death of the ancestor, and work methodically backwards from there. Published passenger lists for organised immigration schemes such as the 1820 or Byrne Settlers exist, though there are often discrepancies. For individuals travelling as "free" or "unassisted" passengers, few printed sources are available. Newspaper shipping columns can be used (see examples on the Genealogy World web site), but unless an approximate date of arrival and port of entry is known, such searches are not feasible. An increasing number of SA passenger lists are appearing on various web sites but so far the content is merely the tip of the iceberg, transcription time being the hurdle.

Even the original manifests (where they have survived) present certain difficulties: occupations shown may have been expedient rather than truthful. Family groups are not always easily identifiable - sometimes the head of the family appears in the "surety" column, if he arrived in the colony as the advance guard, sending for spouse and children at a later date. Detail supplied on the lists varies, e.g. initials rather than forenames in full.

Steerage passengers, by far the most numerous, are frequently omitted, a clear case of class discrimination! Troops are seldom listed as individuals, except for, occasionally, the officers in charge of the unit. The LDS has filmed certain SA passenger registers, so check the Family History Library Catalogue on http://www.familysearch.org/ or ask for advice at your local FHC.

Read about "The European Immigration Index" on the Genealogy World web site and visit our Maritime Pages for more on Natal arrivals. For information on researching Indentured Indian Immigrants see the section on Durban Archives in our article on "Archives, Libraries and Museums in Natal".

A detailed guide to South African and other maritime records is in course of compilation and will be uploaded on the Genealogy World web site soon.

Note: considerable confusion exists on the appropriate use of the terms "immigration" and "emigration". A way of remembering the difference between the two is thinking of immigration as "IN-migration", coming into a country, and emigration as "E(XIT)-migration", going out of a country. Joseph Byrne referred to his settlers as "emigrants" because they were leaving Britain under his auspices. To us, they were "immigrants" arriving in Natal.


The knowledgeable enthusiasts who form the core of the online mailing lists are often willing to undertake voluntary look-ups at archives or in published sources in their personal library. Providing a forum for discussion on every conceivable SA genealogy topic, and an opportunity to make contact with others who may be researching linked ancestors, the mailing lists are a valuable resource. And don't neglect the searchable list archives: your question may have been answered previously. To get the best possible response, make sure that the subject line of your posting is clear and to the point, e.g. a name plus area and date Suggested mailing lists include:
The above addresses should be used when posting a message to the lists.

To subscribe, send an e-mail with the word subscribe in the body of the message to:

It is also possible to subscribe to the lists in Digest Mode (substitute D for L in the addresses above).

To search the list archives of any of the above, go to the Rootsweb page http://lists.rootsweb.com/ and insert the name of the relevant list - not forgetting the hyphens. You will then be able to search the messages by year and subject. There is no charge for use of the mailing lists - it is a free service. Go to the Rootsweb main page for all lists available.


R T J Lombard, Handbook for Genealogical Research in South Africa (HSRC Pretoria 1984); the bible of SA ancestral research

P Philip, British Residents at the Cape 1795-1819 (David Philip, 1981), biographies of 4,800 early settlers

E Morse Jones, Roll of the British Settlers in South Africa (A A Balkema, 1969) lists 1820 Settlers

M D Nash, The Settler Handbook; a new list of the 1820 Settlers (Chameleon Press, 1987)

E Bull, Aided Immigration from Britain to South Africa 1857 - 1867 (Pretoria, HSRC, 1991); passenger lists and 12,000 names

G B Dickason, Irish Settlers to the Cape: History of the Clanwilliam 1820 Settlers from Cork Harbour (Cape Town 1973)

G B Dickason, Cornish Immigrants to South Africa: The Cousin Jack's contribution to the development of mining and commerce 1820 - 1920 (Cape Town 1978)

S Spencer, British Settlers in Natal (University of Natal Press); detailed biographies; 7 volumes (up to G so far)

Dr J Clark, Natal Settler Agent: The Career of John Moreland Agent for the Byrne emigration scheme of 1849-51 (A A Balkema, 1972); detailed passenger lists and descriptions of voyages

C G Botha, The French Refugees at the Cape (Cape Town, 1970)

C C de Villiers and C Pama, Genealogies of old South African families (Cape Town, 1966)

D F du Toit Malherbe, Family Register of the South African Nation (Tegniek, 1966)

B Cilliers, Genealogiee van die Afrikaner families in Natal (PMB 1986)

E L G Schnell, For men must work: an account of German immigration to the Cape with special reference to the German Military Settlers of 1857 and the German immigrants of 1858 (Cape town 1954)

S Watt, Roll of Honour of Imperial Forces Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (University of Natal Press Pietermaritzburg 2000)

J Wassermann & B Kearney ed., A Warrior's Gateway: Durban and the Anglo-Boer War 1899-1902 (Protea Book House Pretoria 2002)

Contact details of all South African National Archives Repositories and many related organizations can be found at http://www.national.archives.gov.za/

See Genealogy World, main menu item: "South African Interest".

© Rosemary Dixon-Smith 2004

Rosemary is willing to answer e-mail questions and provide more detailed advice on any topic raised in the above introductory research guide.